Embracing Dialects in Middle School English Class

A variety of voices in literature helps students recognize themselves in text and connect with others

By: Jason D. DeHart


I will start with an understatement: Now seems as apt a time as any to begin conversations about multiculturalism and marginalized populations in the classroom. A stance of cultural respect opens opportunities for learning and has the potential to deemphasize boundaries between dominant languages, including dialects, and the languages of everyday people. Some marginalized cultures do not hail from far away but have their roots on our own soil. The Appalachian Research Commission reported in 2015 there is continuing disparity in the economic growth in Appalachia. These young learners from foothills and backroads form the basis of this article’s concern.

So, how do educators engage students who may have challenges accessing more complicated texts, as well as hurdles in living conditions, and where does the work begin in terms of dialects? Challenges can include spelling, speaking, and forming sentences, but other challenges might include students disconnecting with a world in the classroom that does not look or sound like it values their home culture. What follows are a few simple ideas about reaching all students, even the ones with a slightly different accent. I should note at the outset that I grew up in Appalachia and teach in the foothills, so I may be more than a little biased on this issue.

Strategies

It seems evident that there is a need for strategies when considering how to address Appalachian dialect in the classroom. Students speaking with a dialect are not English language learners, per se, and yet there are challenges specific to working with this group. These suggestions are based on my own experience as a middle school English/language arts teacher. Of course, these suggestions also have their limitations. What works with one group sometimes does not translate well to another group, and there is not necessarily one method that reaches across literacy boundaries. Having a number of strategies from which to work and adapt with learners may serve as a starting point for conversations about addressing dialect in the classroom.

Talk about Talk

First and foremost, effective language arts classes including members of Appalachian communities are places where students and educators can talk about talk. If the title language arts means anything, it should convey the message that language itself is an art form and, as with many other art forms, expression can be quite personal and can exist in a variety of modes. Conversation need not shy away from focusing on the differences among dialects. Students desire to gain exposure to the rest of the world and many are curious about cultures other than their own. It is always the work of expert educators to model respect for a variety of cultures.

Talking about texts is a useful and productive part of classroom instruction, and classrooms can be places where cultural differences can be explored and celebrated. While moving the familiarity with prestige dialect and conventions is the general direction of an English/language arts classroom, and while formality is a hallmark of writing in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), students’ individual cultures and dialects should not be devalued or degraded in the process.

Unique Voices

One of the beauties of literature is that students can gain insight into a variety of authors and voices. Students also need to see themselves in the texts they read; to that end, Appalachian readers would likely benefit from reading the works of James Still, Jesse Stuart, Lee Smith, Wilma Dykeman, Rick Bragg, Fred Chappell, and Silas House, to name a few. Entire texts or grade-level appropriate passages can be selected from the works of these authors and shared, as can poems and songs, including the work of George Ella Lyon.

The work of Mark Twain can be used to consider other instances of dialect, as can the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Appalachian students need not only see their own culture represented in print; in addition to seeing themselves, all students need to see the value of others unlike themselves in print. By gaining exposure to the struggles, successes, and experiences of many groups of people, students can begin to connect their own experiences with these voices. Writing is a next step exploration for this reading process as well.

Can middle school students hang out with these authors? They absolutely can, especially when they have our help.

Tuxedo Talk

Rather than talking in terms of dialects as dominant or formal, educators may find it helpful to frame these conversations in terms of acceptable conventions on a situational basis. When applying general writing structures, there need not be an additional consideration of appropriateness; however, when applying specific expectations of grammar or elaboration, students can be encouraged to find a way to fit their mode of expression to the standards of expected formality.

Instead of framing these conversations in an oppositional way (e.g., this is the way we talk at school versus at home), teachers may refer to formal conventions as tuxedo talk, and the follow-up with an elaboration like, Tuxedo talk applies in this essay. Just like a tuxedo works best for a formal event, or even wearing a tie and jacket is expected in some places, your reader will expect you to put on your tuxedo for this writing occasion. If the occasion is more personal, then the original way you wrote this would work well. In composing this elaboration, care has been taken not to include words like appropriate or acceptable. Words like these, as well as the word correct, when it comes to grammar and speech depend largely on circumstances and context. Some readers and listeners do, in fact, have expectations for the composition of essays or speeches to be delivered in specific situations; as expert educators, it is part of our work to find ways to convey this idea to students in a way that is respectful and kind, but also retains the notion of a standard to be reached. A dialect does not deflate the value of having high standards for all students.

Using the Known

In addition to the voices that literature provides, students can find common values with protagonists across reading genres. Students should be encouraged to analytically consider and adapt classic literature, as well as modern classics, to their own experiences and understanding, while exploring opportunities in the text to expand their worldviews. This is not an easy balance to maintain.

If a student wants to take his or her understanding of the play Romeo & Juliet, for instance, and apply the play to a modern setting where Juliet stands in the back of a truck bed rather than an ornate balcony and Romeo wears a flannel shirt, why not allow them to do so? This exploration of the play is itself a playful exercise in the conventions of the work. When a director wants to retell Shakespeare in a modern setting, it is not often seen as inappropriate. Students should not be admonished for participating in the same kind of creativity, particularly as they demonstrate understanding of the contents of the work itself.

Conclusions

All voices in our classrooms have merit and should be valued. It is the challenge of expert educators to explore cultures and dialects with students in a way that is meaningful and includes open discussions of why and how dialects come to be. Using a variety of voices in literature, as well as exploring opportunities to have students apply their understandings within their own frameworks, can encourage young learners to achieve a balance of recognizing themselves in text, as well as connecting with others through reading. Writing about these experiences and having opportunities to write inside and outside of dialects in a variety of modes and styles is a necessary next step for students.


Jason D. DeHart taught middle grades English for eight years and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in literacy studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee and works in an adjunct capacity at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.
jdehart@vols.utk.edu

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2019.

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